BEIRUT: One can imagine UNIFIL’s top military and civilian officials reacting with feelings of dread to recent calls from the March 14 coalition for a U.N. presence along the border with Syria. They can probably rest assured, however, as the chances of UNIFIL troops or a fresh U.N. mission being deployed alongside Lebanese soldiers along the Syrian border are remote.
It seems highly improbable that the government would request UNIFIL’s assistance and equally doubtful that the U.N. Security Council – already bitterly divided over Syria – would authorize a new mission to Lebanon.
Even in the unlikely event that authorization was granted, and depending on the precise definition of the mission, the peacekeepers would face a multitude of problems, probably dooming the entire enterprise from the start.
March 14 seeks a U.N. deployment along the border to help the Lebanese Army curb Syrian troop incursions and artillery shelling, which has become a nightly phenomenon for a string of villages between Abboudiyah and Wadi Khaled since June.
A memorandum submitted to President Michel Sleiman by March 14 last week cited Article 14 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls on the Lebanese government to secure its borders and prevent the entry of unauthorized armaments and permits the government to call upon UNIFIL’s assistance if required.
Note that Article 14 refers to weapons being smuggled into Lebanon, not smuggled from Lebanon, an obvious reference to Hezbollah’s arms routes when 1701 was drawn up at the end of the 2006 war with Israel.
Smuggling weapons from Lebanon into Syria was not an issue six years ago. But the main reason for Syria’s troop incursions and shelling is because parts of the northern border have become a de facto safe haven for the armed Syrian opposition.
Members of the Free Syrian Army use the area to regroup, plan operations, treat wounded, smuggle arms into Syria and mount periodic cross-border attacks against Syrian army positions.
Certainly, the scale of FSA activity in north Lebanon is minimal compared to that of Turkey. But the Syrian shelling in Akkar and troop raids are attempts to interdict militants crossing the border and to punish the FSA’s Lebanese hosts.
The Lebanese Army has reinforced its presence in Akkar, but there is little more it can do. Returning fire at Syrian army positions is out of the question. But chasing and detaining FSA militants in Lebanon will simply incur further anger from Lebanese Sunnis who support the Syrian opposition.
If elements from UNIFIL or fresh U.N. forces were deployed into Akkar and the northern Bekaa, they too would face the same constraints as the Lebanese Army.
Furthermore, UNIFIL is experiencing something of a respite from bomb attacks by jihadist groups based in southern Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam and the numerous other small potent jihadist factions once regarded UNIFIL as a soft target.
Now, however, the desire to attack UNIFIL appears to have been sidelined by the swelling jihad in Syria which is drawing Sunni Islamist militants from across the region into an epic struggle against the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus and its Shiite allies in Iran and Lebanon.
Sheikh Omar Bakri, the Salafist cleric from Tripoli, last week said that an “Islamic Spring” was under way in the region. “The Sunni giant has awakened and the Caliphate State will soon see the light,” he told Al-Liwa newspaper, a comment that will provide little encouragement for the U.N. to send troops to the north.
Indeed, if U.N. troops were dispatched to help the Lebanese Army secure the border with Syria, they could find themselves once more in the jihadist firing line.
Then one must consider the scale of the deployment along the border. Would a U.N. force be confined simply to the Sunni-populated areas of the border in Akkar and the northeast Bekaa Valley, or would it extend all along the eastern frontier? Indeed, how far south should such a deployment stretch?
The border with Syria from Arida on the coast to the eastern limit of UNIFIL’s area of operations near Shebaa village is some 330 kilometers, most of it rugged and desolate mountains and parts of it undelineated and disputed by Lebanon and Syria.
In the southeast sector, between the villages of Deir al-Ashayer and Kfar Qouk there is still a sizeable Syrian army presence. The Syrians claim the area lies inside Syria while Lebanese and most international maps show the territory belonging to Lebanon.
In May 2005, the U.N. team charged with verifying Syria’s troop withdrawal in conformity with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 was unable to verify which version was correct, because “there is no border agreement between the governments of Syria and Lebanon, with no clear demarcation on the ground.” In fact, perusal of Google Earth images shows that the Syrian military presence in this area has increased since 2005.
A little further north near Qussaya, one enters terrain controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The last time anyone from the U.N. attempted to gain access to the PFLP-GC’s Jabal Maaysara base in the mountains east of Qussaya, they were chased away by gun-toting militants.
Hezbollah has full control of the hills running north from Qussaya to somewhere between Younine and Arsal.
Hezbollah has not hesitated to voice its rejection of U.N. troops being deployed along the border.
“Hezbollah categorically refuses the deployment of international forces along the northern border,” Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem said last week, adding that “this is a Zionist project to destroy Lebanon just like [it destroyed] Syria.”
Qassem was talking only about the mainly Sunni-populated north. What would his reaction be to the notion of U.N. troops deployed alongside the string of Shiite villages east of Baalbek?